How To Cut Down Words In An Essay

When it comes to writing essays, there are two frequent issues that arise; the word count is either too low or too high for the stated range of the essay. For those who perpetually end up with too few words, you need to figure out ways to increase your essay word count. For those who frequently find themselves with too many words on the page, there are some simple steps to take when editing to help reduce the number of words while at the same time making it a stronger piece of writing. Below are some suggestions to do this.

Rank Your Arguments

If you find you’re well above your word count maximum, the first step is to rank the points you use to substantiate your argument. By ranking the importance of the arguments you make in the essay, you can eliminate ones which aren’t as important as others, keeping the essay strong while removing large portions of writing. If you don’t want to eliminate any of the points, you can still reduce word count by mentioning all the arguments, but not writing as much detail about those not as strong as the more important points.

Focus on the Main Point

Once you determine what the important arguments are for your essay, read through it looking for any paragraphs or sentences which fail to address your main argument(s) or topic. It’s easy to accidentally go off on tangents when writing, and eliminating these tangents can help reduce word count. The more focused you can remain on your topic and arguments, the more concise your writing will be.

Use the Best Verb

This may sound obvious, but a lot of writers don’t do this well. When writing, always use the perfect verb rather than one that’s close, but not perfect. When you use the best verb possible, it will reduce the amount of writing you do in most cases. This is due to the fact that when you use a verb that’s not quite correct, you usually need to add more words to clarify your meaning. Here’s an example:

“They beat the opposing team by a lot of points.”

While “beat” is accurate in this case, it’s not the perfect verb because they not only beat the team, they beat the team by a lot. Using the better verb “trounce” in this instant will reduce the word count while still giving the same meaning as the longer sentence.

“They trounced the opposing team.”

Remove Adverbs

Look through your essay and see if you find any adverbs, especially adverbs which have “ly” endings. In many instances, these adverbs end up being filler words which end up being placed in the writing because it’s the way we talk, but the words don’t add anything beneficial to the actual essay. Go through the essay and ask if each one is needed and remove those that aren’t. Some words you may want to look out for are (click on image to expand to see better)

Remove Adjectives

Much in the same way as adverbs make their way into writing, multiple adjectives are used when one (or none at all) would suffice. Read the essay to see if all of the adjectives used are needed, and remove those which don’t add to the meaning of the sentence being written. Some common adjectives to look for are:

able, bad, big, different, early, first, few, good, great, high, important, large, last, little, long, new, next, old, other, own, public, right, same, small, young

(Photo courtesy of Matt Hampel)

We had a great question in the comments to a post last week asking how to cut down an overlimit essay (can’t believe nobody’s asked us this before).

Here’s some advice:

This probably won’t help any of you much, but starting your essays from OUTLINES can be a huge time-saver in the end. If you know what your main points are ahead of time, you can write to those and more likely stay on target, both in terms of messaging, and in length. When our clients do a good job with their outlines, they usually do a good job on the essays themselves, and they don’t end up with bloated monsters.

But, sometimes not.

Once you’ve got your drafts out on the page and you’ve recognized that they are in fact monsters, then you need to take a serious look at what you’re trying to say. Many people are repetitive and redundant and duplicative (get it?) in how they write. They do what’s sometimes called “throat-clearing”: they write a sentence or two of rambly introductory I’m-gonna-tell-you-something-here stuff, and then after a bit of that, they finally come out and say it. Sometimes it’s a rambly whole paragraph.

Here’s an example:

XYZ Business School will help me in achieving my career goals because of the curriculum and the clubs. I want to get involved with the Consulting Club and the Wine Club while I’m on campus.

The first sentence says nothing new. It doesn’t help the reader know anything about the candidate. It could be written by any candidate to any school. It adds no value. The second sentence (is very sucky please do not copy EssaySnark’s lame-o sentence into your essay) has the details of two specific club names. It has (marginal) value. When looking for what to cut vs. keep, always veer towards the specifics.

Try this: One at a time, examine every single sentence, and ask if it’s got:
a) NEW INFORMATION that is:
b) OFFERING CONCRETE DETAILS which are:
c) CRITICAL TO THE STORY.

If not — if it doesn’t meet all three criteria — then that might be an opportunity to tighten.

The first sentence in a paragraph is often superfluous. We frequently see lead-in sentences that are very generic; usually the second sentence in a paragraph has good details, but frequently it’s repetitive to the first one, which is a more vague or generalized idea that doesn’t have anything tangible or specific. Look to those first sentences and make sure they are packing a punch.

Another trick is to cut the sentence, then re-read the paragraph: Does it lose anything? Is the meaning still clear? If so, then maybe you can just leave the sentence out.

Finally, you should never submit an essay immediately after a heavy editing session. Always sleep on it, then come back and re-read, to make sure that you didn’t butcher the meaning with your last round of revision.

Sometimes when Brave Supplicants wrestle with the monster they end up mangling it but it still lives and breathes. More than once, we’ve seen essays deteriorate in the “final edit” stage, so be careful!


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